Explorations in Japanese Death Poetry

Frost on a summer day:
all I leave behind is water
that has washed my brush.

Cicada shell:
little did I know
it was my life.

How leisurely the
cherry blossoms bloom this year,
unhurried by their doom.

Though I tarry
on the road my master took,
above us glows one moon.

You cannot tell
its taste to him
who never tasted blowfish.

I pass as all things do
dew on the grass.

Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a mountain cave
And death
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think to much
About the meaning they may have
You’ll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.
-Mumon Gensen

Life is an ever-rolling wheel
And every day is the right one
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to snow.
-Mumon Gensen

Autumn wind of eve,
blow away the clouds that mass
over the moon’s pure light
and the mists that cloud our mind,
do thou sweep away as well.
Now we disappear,
well, what must we think of it?
From the sky we came.
Now we may go back again.
That’s at least one point of view.
-Hojo Ujimasa

Whether one passes on or remains is all the same.
That you can take no one with you is the only difference.
Ah, how pleasant! Two awakenings and one sleep.
This dream of a fleeing world! The roseate hues of early dawn!
-Tokugawa Ieyasu

Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.
-Uesugi Kenshin

Death poems
are mere delusion-
death is death.


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